Taking Directions

Softly and musically, but sadly and longingly… So read the stage directions appended to one of Marchbanks' lines in George Bernard Shaw's Candida. Good grief—how is an actor expected to deal with that? Shaw is famous for such elaborate instructions.

Many of us were taught to cross out stage directions on the first reading. In A Challenge to the Actor, Uta Hagen advises ignoring "all adjectives and descriptive adverbs" written into the script; they are meant for the readers, not the actors. Actors should concern themselves with what they do—their actions—not with predetermining how they do it. She reminds us that Shakespeare used few stage directions.

GBS notwithstanding, at one time stage directions were inserted by the director or stage manager based on the design and direction of the first production. Now, most stage directions in plays and virtually all in TV and film scripts are written by the author. For the actor, do new rules apply?

To get a broad perspective of current thinking on the topic, I talked to an acting teacher, a playwright, an actor, and a director. We discussed stage directions for actions and setting and for emotional attitudes, and we also discussed punctuation—another text element I was taught to ignore. It seems new rules do indeed apply.

The Teacher

Los Angeles acting teacher Stephen Book, who has also directed and acted, was forthright: "Forget whatever you heard about crossing out stage directions," he said. "It used to be the rule [in order] to keep actors from arbitrarily acting them out. But over the years that has changed into a [habit] of disregarding the author's intent." Book believes stage directions are the writer's gift to the actor. "When you're breaking down a script, stage directions are a fantastic clue to tell you when the beat changes," he explained. "It's not what they tell you to do but where they're located in the script. If a stage direction appears after a certain line, that's where one beat ends and another begins. What you actually do is much more open to interpretation. To throw them out is to throw out a major tool."

In Book on Acting: Improvisation Technique, Book writes, "The author knows he can't tell you how to play a scene. He also knows that if you follow the stage direction you will probably experientially discover a beat change and the need for a choice.

"If… he writes that a character laughs, it helps you to see how he imagines the scene unfolding. You may ultimately play the scene without laughing there, but it helps you to get into the interpretive groove of what the author was intending."

The Director

Amy Glazer, who teaches acting and directing at San José State University and is directing Rebecca Gilman's Blue Surge at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in April, was taught that it's a sign of a bad director to even look at the stage directions. "I used to cross them out, then reinvent the wheel," she admitted. But as she started to mature as a director, she realized that stage directions indicating action and movement were helpful signposts from the playwright. "They can inform the moments and beats of a scene," Glazer said.

Although Glazer thinks it's helpful for actors, especially in early rehearsals, to ground themselves by following action-related stage directions like (she sits down), which may change later on as blocking changes, she certainly doesn't want her actors to look at adverbs like (angrily).

But she does want them to seriously consider the punctuation. "That's where the rhythm of the piece lives," she said. "That's where the comedy and the character come from. When lines are short, actors want to try to fix them with commas. But there's a different psychological way of thinking from character to character, which is informed by the punctuation. If you want to understand how a character thinks and what a moment really is, you have to look at punctuation." She pointed out that with writers like David Mamet or Rebecca Gilman, punctuation is essential. "If a text is punctuated with an exclamation point, and it isn't working, I'll say, 'Let's try it as a question mark or a comma.' But first I try to get the actor to internalize it the way it's written, especially in comedy. I've learned to trust the punctuation. Punctuation is the map to the playwright's ideas. The more you give yourself over to the way this character speaks, the more quietly this character creeps up on an actor."

The Actor

"If you ignore the punctuation, you're ignoring the pattern of the character and shooting yourself in the foot," agreed Delia MacDougall, an actor and director who is appearing in Denis Johnson's Soul of a Whore at San Francisco's Campo Santo. For example, she said, if your character's lines are peppered with exclamation points, and the other character's aren't, it's clear the other character has the upper hand. "So if you don't play your lines with the punctuation, you're changing the way the argument works and not allowing the other actor to do his job."

Preparing a piece by Virginia Woolf, MacDougall was astonished by all the colons and semi-colons: "I figured that's the character's thought process—it doesn't ever stop or conclude until the very end. It's like a maze." MacDougall said that Los Angeles-based teacher/director Richard Seyd advises students who are auditioning, if they don't have much time with the sides beforehand, to study the punctuation; that will tell you what type of argument it is and give you the color and the pattern of the scene.

As for stage directions, MacDougall acknowledges that writers like Shaw overdo it. "They should write it into the line—an exclamation point at the end—but they're just trying to help you interpret it the way they want, and I think you do have a certain responsibility to send the playwright's message across," she said. However, in interpreting a stage direction like (angrily), you can certainly make a more subtle choice than the word seems to indicate.

With playwright Naomi Iizuka's work, MacDougall has found that much of the play is in the stage directions. For example, in Polaroid Stories, Iizuka wrote, "She turns into a star." Said MacDougall, "You look at that and go, Oh, my God, what am I going to do? You can't ignore it."

She concluded, "I think playwrights are trying to actor-proof and director-proof their work, which makes sense in a way…. I believe you follow everything the playwright indicated, then you can go, 'That's not how we're staging it.'"

The Playwright

Let's give the final word to the playwright. Claire Chafee is best known for Why We Have a Body; her Darwin's Finches premieres at San Francisco's Encore Theatre in April. "I love writing about people who aren't necessarily saying what they mean," she said. "The stage directions can be really helpful in that regard."

She confessed that her early plays were full of stage directions. One instructed an actor to slap her palm with the back of her other hand in the middle of a monologue. The actor let her know, good-naturedly but in no uncertain terms, that such a specific direction was uncalled for, and Chafee realizes now that writers need to be cautious if they want people to listen. She added, "If you write things like (angrily), you're not going to get the best out of the actor, the most creative choice for their particular gift."

Still, she said, a playwright wants to provide insight into what the scene is about, moment to moment. "I was taught in certain playwriting workshops that even if the stage directions are cut, this is a chance for the actors and director to hear the writer's voice," she explained. "I notice when I read plays, the opening, particularly the setting, evokes the tone." If a playwright writes staccato, one-word sentences like, "Dark. Nighttime. Crickets," said Chafee, "they're letting their aesthetic come through already, before the play has started, and you realize they want this Mamet-like, clean thrust. Whereas Tennessee Williams's stage directions are much more elongated and lyrical, setting the whole entire scene."

She herself often inserts directions like "(slowly opens cap of a thermos)" or "(applies lipstick)," knowing full well that the action can be changed by the director or actor. She finds that a better choice than writing (pause). "People tend to interpret pause as dead silence," she said. "I'm trying to give a cue, almost like in a musical score. It's a bit of a dance—you certainly don't want to stage the production in your text."

She added, "Hopefully a good playwright wants actors to extrapolate and find their own truth. At first the actor follows the directions. Then you've got to lift that off the page and it's yours, definitely." BSW